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“Is the baby outside?” asks my wife, alarm bubbling up through her groggy vowels.

It’s summer, the middle of the night. We’re sleeping with the windows open, which is why we can hear the plaintive cry coming from the neighbor’s backyard. “Yooooooooww.”

In the fog of sleep, it does sound like a baby. But the ensuing panic — Is my kid okay? — helps to clear the fog, and when I hear it again, I start to wonder. Something sounds just a hair…off. Is it because the baby is delirious, maybe with fever? Did she somehow wander downstairs and out the door? Did we forget to lock the door? Check the bed. Oh, thank God — baby is inside the house and fast asleep. But there’s that cry again, floating in from the darkness: the sad moan of a sleepy toddler with a splinter or a stomachache. Crap. Is that someone else’s kid stuck out there?

Actually, no. But if you’ve never heard the whine of a feral cat, it’s an easy mistake to make.

Mrs. Doolittle Has a Problem

“People at work call me Mrs. Doolittle,” says the woman I’ll call Mrs. Doolittle. “I love animals.” This love affair has been going on for a while now. “You can get a bunny to use a litter box,” she says at one point in our conversation. “The bunny we had when I was a kid did it. He was big, 25 pounds. We lived in Hawaii, and once we went camping for a week, and when we came back, he’d stolen my dad’s jelly beans, chewed his black socks, chewed a square out of the arm of a couch. My dad was like, ‘That’s it, we’re eating it!’ He had the knife out; me and my sisters were crying. My mom called the Hawaiian zoo and said, ‘We’ve got a rabbit. Do you want it?’ They said yes. We drove it to the Hawaiian zoo, and they had areas set up like fairy tales — the old woman who lived in a shoe, things like that. He went into one of those, and they took care of him.”

Today, she has a bunny of her own on her patch of land at the foot of a boulder-studded slope near Barrett Junction. The bunny lives in a cage with one of Mrs. Doolittle’s roosters. The other rooster lives with her dozen or so chickens. The people at work who call her Mrs. Doolittle are happy to bring her empty egg cartons, which the chickens are happy to fill.

Rusty, her 29-year-old Arabian horse, shares a corral with a couple of voluble geese, though there was a time when he snuck into the backyard and stuck his head through Doolittle’s bedroom window in an effort to get at her vanilla wafers.

Only the dogs have the run of the fenced-in front yard. Boomer is an Australian Shepherd; Poochie is an old black Labrador with epilepsy severe enough to require phenobarbital. The dogs belong to Doolittle’s stepdaughters, but the stepdaughters do not live here with Doolittle and her teenage son Andrew. Only their dogs. “You just take things in,” Doolittle explains. That’s how the geese got here. “Some family was talking about ‘getting rid’ of them, and I was like, ‘No way. I have the property. I have ducks. Bring the geese out.’” The ducks got picked off by a predator, but the geese remain. The ball python in the living room — the one in the glass cage next to the corn snake and above the tortoise — arrived in much the same way. “I do the best I can,” she concludes. “It’s tough to feed all these animals, being a single mom. But I can’t let them starve. Nothing needs to suffer or starve. That’s how I am.”

So when she called San Diego’s Feral Cat Coalition about her cat problem, it wasn’t because she wanted them gone. It was that she didn’t want any more of them. “It started when I moved out here four years ago. There was one cat that had kittens in my doghouse, and my horse stuck her head in the doghouse…it’s been crazy ever since.” Now, thanks in part to a couple of tomcats who stop by for a few months each year, she reckons she’s up to 18, blacks and gray tabbies, many of them living in the crawl space under the house. “I feed them in the morning and at night, and they go through 25 pounds of food a week,” she says. “When I drive in after work, they come running from everywhere. ‘Hey, she’s here!’” The ones that don’t get the message hear the dry tinkling of cat food being poured into a metal bowl and know it’s time to eat.

That’s a lot of feeding, and a lot of food. “I’ve been trying to find someplace that would help me get them fixed. Thank goodness this guy Josh is going to help, because spring is coming, and that’s when they’ll start breeding. I have one male here who’s a horndog; I’m stopping him all the time. He’s one bad boy. The females can get pregnant very young. It’s not fair to them. They hardly know what to do.”

Trap Training with the Hirschmillers

Somewhere around 1994, Josh Hirschmiller noticed some feral kittens hanging around his neighborhood in El Cajon. “I like animals,” he says, “so I thought they could maybe be pets. I didn’t know anything about the Feral Cat Coalition then, but I found out. I caught the kittens and then used them to catch the mom. I went to the FCC to get them all fixed and then I put the mom back where I found her and found homes for the kittens.”

A good deed — and for many people, involvement with the FCC ends there. “We spay and neuter about 2000 cats a year,” says FCC volunteer coordinator Sandy Dodson. “And we could do more. How this usually starts is, somebody will call the hotline and say they’ve got a feral cat issue. One of our screeners will call them back, find out what’s going on, educate them about what’s necessary, and if needed, arrange for them to get traps. We find out how many cats they expect to bring in and then give them a reservation for one of our clinics. It’s usually about a couple of months’ wait because we have a waiting list.”

But for Hirschmiller, it was only the beginning. “I started helping other people who needed these cats caught and fixed. Someone needed to do it. Nobody from Fish and Game is supposed to catch cats unless they’re sick or injured, and most extermination companies that do cat removal are charging $200 to $300 an animal.”

The doing got more involved. “I talked to other people who trap ferals, found out their techniques, and developed my own. I’ve got three different sorts of traps, and in certain situations, we’ll use fishing nets, or even welding gloves if the cat is confined or injured. I did it off and on until about seven years ago, when it got to be too much. I was working at a piano store, and it was taking work time.” But when he became self-employed as a piano tuner three years ago, he returned to trapping and redoubled his efforts. “I’m on the board of East County Animal Rescue, and last year, we spayed or neutered over 1000 animals: 550 feral cats, and another 520 adoptable animals.” (“Adoptable” here means a kitten captured while young enough to be domesticated and adopted out, sometimes through a local Petco. Ordinarily, a mature feral cat will seek to return to its colony.)

Hirschmiller estimates that he spends over 40 hours a week on the work. He does not get paid for it. He does, however, get to spend a lot of time with his children: 12-year-old Brendan and 10-year-old Andrea. “They love doing it. At this point, it’s part of who they are. Brendan has always been into animals, since he was two or three. Now he wants to be a herpetologist. I could send him with anybody and he could catch cats.”

When Doolittle called the FCC, it wasn’t long before Hirschmiller was involved. “Honestly, I think I’m the only one in San Diego County who does what I do in terms of large trappings. Karen Paulson [not her real name] does something like it, but she doesn’t have the vehicle to transport that many cats, and she doesn’t have time to go and trap train” — that is, teaching folks how to acclimate the cats to traps over time so that actual trapping is more easily accomplished. “So, that’s why she got me involved.”

The Feral Cat Coalition runs a floating clinic — different locations throughout the county — on the second Sunday of every month. And clinic is where Hirschmiller needs to go. “County prices are $40 for males to be fixed, and $50 for females. We don’t have money for that. The clinic needs about $15 per cat for equipment and medication, and they get everything donated.” But the schedule makes timing the trapping an issue. Hirschmiller stores the cats he traps in his garage, each in its individual cage. “I give them food and water, but I don’t want to keep them caged for more than three or four days. That means I try to trap late on the Friday before the clinic, and release on Monday after.” And that means that on the previous Monday, he’s headed out to Barrett Junction for a trap training session with Mrs. Doolittle.

“Other people don’t think it’s possible to trap train,” says Hirschmiller. “They’ll see some cats behind a store, and they’ll think, ‘I don’t have time to put food in a trap every day, get the cats so they’ll go into a trap. I’ll just try to catch them.’ And they catch a couple of them and get them fixed, but they don’t fix the problem. What I do is I make the time.”

He pulls up to Doolittle’s house in his Scion XB just after sunset, with his kids in tow and five traps in the trunk: wire cages equipped with trigger plates and drop-down gates. The kids help him unload and then drift off to watch Doolittle’s son Andrew practice his skateboard tricks in the driveway. Hirschmiller ties the gates in the open position and sets the trap down on the covered concrete patio slab where the cats usually feed. Then he loads up a bunch of oversized french-fry trays with Doolittle’s dry cat food and starts placing the trays at the backs of the traps.

“A lot of people, when you start this, will think, ‘They’re not going to eat out of there. My cats will starve.’ Then they put food outside of the trap.” This, of course, defeats the purpose, which is getting the cats comfortable with the idea of entering a cage to eat. “But if all the food goes into the traps between now and Friday, we won’t have any trouble catching them.” He lays out the pattern of events. “They have a hierarchy. A couple of them will go in, and sometimes, two or three will go in at once. But some will wait for the others to be done eating. And a couple will go in only a little way at the beginning, so I’m going to do a couple of traps with the food at the front tonight. Eventually, they’ll see everybody else going to the back and they’ll get comfortable. Oh, and please line the bottom of the trap with newspaper to cover the trigger plate.” Cats are long enough that if they pay attention to where they’re standing, they might be able to straddle the plate and so avoid dropping the gate.

While he speaks, five or six cats appear from behind the folded ping-pong table and points elsewhere. They make no sound. Hirschmiller’s daughter Andrea takes pictures. One gray tabby hops up onto Doolittle’s food bin and inspects the empty metal bowl. I heard food. What’s going on? “This is one of the nicest ones,” says Andrew of a particular black cat, one of the few who allows herself to be petted. “There’s another with big yellow eyes that I call Spook, because when you come outside, he just freaks out.” Another rolls over onto her back whenever Doolittle comes near.

Most of the cats remain skittish and anonymous, despite Doolittle’s friendly overtures. Several sets of eyes gleam in the darkness just beyond the patio, peering through the gap between the front-yard fence and the house. When we step back from the patio, the parade begins; one cat after another filing through the narrow opening — unhurried, tails high, and still silent. The slab, already crowded with chairs and benches and shelves and a gas generator, is further crowded by nearly 20 curious, hungry cats.

The parade becomes a dance, the cats circling the cages, feinting forward with ginger steps, darting back in trepidation. But appetite is quick to win out — within two minutes, one, two, three cats enter a single cage and begin to feed. Others follow their lead, and venture into the other cages.

“Thank you so much,” says Doolittle as Hirschmiller gathers his kids into the car. “The cats should be healthier without breeding all the time.”

“They will be healthier,” agrees Hirschmiller. “When they’re breeding, males are fighting with males. Males bite females on the back of the neck during breeding. Sometimes, they get abscesses.” (Sometimes, they pass along feline leukemia or feline AIDS.) “The testosterone takes a month to get out of their systems. After that, some of them may take off — there’s no need for them to hang around with females.”

“Well,” says Doolittle, “there aren’t a lot of places for them to go around here. This is where they’re used to; it wouldn’t be fair to put them anywhere else.”

“I’ll be back Friday at 4:00 p.m.,” says Hirschmiller. “Don’t feed them that morning, so that they’re really hungry when we start trapping.”

Doolittle replies, “It’s going to be tough on my little heart when I have all those little faces that have me feed them every morning jumping up and saying ‘Hey!’”

“Yeah, you’ll call me and tell me, ‘I really want to feed them.’ But they’re not going to starve in eight hours, and they’re not going to run off, and it’ll be so much easier for us.”

The Friday Roundup

The rocky slope above Mrs. Doolittle’s little gray house glows gently in the winter sunset. “Look what I look at,” she marvels. “There’s one house behind me, and then the hills. When it gets a little darker, you’ll see a bazillion stars. You’ll see a shooting star within 15 minutes of looking up. I like the country” — feral cats and all.

Trapping is underway, and everything is going swimmingly. Sarah Paulson, who arrived a little before I did, lays out two live traps at a time on the concrete patio, baited with individual servings of Meow Mix Market Select canned cat food. “Anything fishy,” says Paulson. For cats used to crowding around bowls of dry food, the moist, aromatic mounds at the back of the cages are irresistible — not that any of them are trying too terribly hard to resist. “To be honest with you,” says Paulson, “it’s very rare that we get cats this quickly. I can fit 11 traps in my Honda Civic. Sometimes I think, ‘I should buy a truck or something, so that I can trap more cats.’ And then I think, ‘Wait a minute. I’m already crazy.’ So usually, I set them out, leave them overnight, and come back in the morning.” But the way things are going, she’ll be able to take off with a full load in an hour or so, and let Hirschmiller do the overnight trapping. Apparently, Doolittle was good about keeping the food in the cages.

Three cats are already trapped and waiting up at the top of the yard, cowering in the darkness provided by the towels Paulson has laid over the traps. “I do that so when the door closes, the cat still has a sense of being protected. We try not to scare them. We do this because we love them.” That eerie, semihuman yowl slips out from one or two of the trapped ferals, prompting Paulson to comment, “Usually, ferals don’t make any noise. They want to hide. They think you won’t see them if they’re silent. They only make that sound if they’ve had contact with people.”

“I caught a mean one!” cries Andrew from the backyard.

“Oh, in your arms?” Paulson calls back. “You don’t want to do that! If he’s mean, you can’t get him in the trap!”

“That’s enough, Andrew,” says Mrs. Doolittle.

“That’s okay, that’s good,” Paulson tells her. “He’s motivated, like Josh’s kids. Hopefully, they’re going to grow up to be like we are, because we need more of us.”

The little group of cats that was waiting on the patio for dinner is caged in no time; now it’s time to wait for the more suspicious animals still hiding under the house. Paulson sweeps up some stray dry food left on the patio and plants two traps in the garage, where a couple of cats have made their beds. Andrew sets up a trap just outside the entrance to the crawlspace. A black cat bobs his way to a cage’s entrance, slips his head inside. Then his shoulders…then he is halfway in…holds….holds…and pulls back. A gray tabby takes his place and disappears clear up to his tail before backing out. The drama continues in silence until a black tom triggers the gate on his cage and finds himself stuck. At this point, a female would crouch and go quiet, but the tom turns and backs up, turns and backs up, rattling his cage and making the cover towel twitch. Paulson hauls him up to the top of the yard, and silence returns to the patio.

After half an hour, Paulson has eight of her 11 cages filled. Fifteen minutes later, Hirschmiller arrives with his kids and his traps, and he and Paulson chat for a bit about a particular animal before she departs.

“Before I take it, it’d be better if I got the ringworm out of my house and do some adoptions,” says Paulson.

“How many have ringworm?” asks Hirschmiller.

“Oh, my God, the ringworm is so out of control. I don’t use cages when I have cats at the house, so what one gets, they all get. Sometimes, I want to shoot myself.”

“We have issues about cats running free at the house,” says Hirschmiller, his tone a mixture of sympathy and concern. “I have questions about illnesses in cats that I don’t know about.”

Paulson smiles back at him, as if to say, “Yeah, but what are you gonna do? I can’t bear to keep ’em caged.”

Sunday at the Clinic with Number 33

Paulson and Hirschmiller pulled 19 cats off of Mrs. Doolittle’s land prior to Sunday’s clinic. Hirschmiller and Sandie, another trapper, pulled another 19 off a one-block radius of urban El Cajon that is home to three separate feral cat colonies. (This makes them the biggest trappers by a long shot; even other regulars on the scene generally bring in only three to five animals a month.) “As a colony grows,” says Hirschmiller, “the alpha males will run off the other animals, and the others will find their own places to live. There’s one by a rest home — we call that one Decker’s — and one by a rest home for crazy people — we call that the Nuthouse — and then one by an auto shop with cats in the yard — we call that Victoria’s. This time, we caught seven from Decker’s, six from the Nuthouse, and six from Victoria’s.”

“Me and Josh’s kids were there really late at night,” says Sandie. “It was scary by the Nuthouse. Some guy climbed out of his window, walked around, and then climbed into his window again. There was no staff out there, just us. And, of course, the cats.

Now, however, it’s bright and sunny and safe, and there are somewhere around 175 cats lined up along the sidewalk in front of the strip mall that houses the Pet Hospital of La Mesa on Jackson. Today’s batch is midrange in number; past clinics have handled as many as 300 on a single Sunday. Most are in cages draped with towels, but a fair number are in pet carriers. One such has a note attached, along with a $20 bill. “Please take care of my baby,” it reads. “Dear FCC, this cat was born feral. Its mother was hit by a car.” The staff, all volunteers, murmur their disapproval. Where is the cat supposed to go after it’s been fixed? This is a clinic, not a hotel.

Volunteers — some of them Navy — get the cats numbered and registered and start moving the cages into the clinic’s waiting room. The floor is lined with newspaper to soak up the urine. The steady thrum of yowls is all but drowned out by a particularly persistent dog, registering his disapproval of all this feline company from somewhere inside the warren of well-lit rooms. From the waiting room, the cats, still in cages, travel into the anesthesia parlor — which is always a room with doors. “When the cats are in cages, we can give them the shot right through the grill,” says Steve, who’s been doing this long enough to gauge the cats’ weight without a scale. (Weight will determine quantity of anesthetic.) “But when they’re in carriers, we have to open the doors to inject them. Sometimes, they’ll come flying out of there and go running up the walls. We always take the pictures down first. If we have to reach into the carrier, we’ll wear a welder’s glove, though they’ve been known to bite through that. And if they get out, sometimes we have to use a net.”

Number 33 — a black-and-white female and one of the first to get to be serviced today — is caged; no gloves or nets required. She hisses and jumps when she gets her shot, but it’s all over in a second, and then she’s on to the next room for sleepytime. Once down, she is removed from the cage, which is sent outside to be hosed and scrubbed clean. The cat’s sex is verified, and her tongue is pulled forward and to the side, to ensure a clear airway. The effect is completely comic: “Dead kitties!” laughs one volunteer. (It gets even funnier when you spy 15 or 20 such kitties, splayed out on their backs and tied onto transport boards, and the boards being loaded onto a cart like so many cafeteria trays.) Even so, the general atmosphere is sweetly sentimental, despite the clinical efficiency. “This is probably the only human contact these cats will ever have,” says a woman in the sleepytime room. “To be able to give them a little bit of love…even though they’re sleeping, maybe it will make a subconscious impression — that all people aren’t bad.”

Number 33 is given a shot for the pain she’ll experience after waking up from surgery, then carried over to a sink, where her bladder is expressed to avoid accidents during surgery. “It’s just like finding a water balloon in the abdomen,” says the woman at the sink, “then squeezing from top to bottom. Kind of like milking a cow.” The acrid stream pings off the stainless-steel sink and runs down the drain, but the sharp whiff of urine hangs in the air.

“Are you going to be doing this 175 times today?” I ask.

“I hope not. I have arthritis. I’m not primarily the one who does this.”

Behind her, the female cats are tied to the boards — males don’t need boarding in order to be neutered. The females’ bellies are shaved below the ribcage and swabbed with iodine. A number of animals are lovely enough to make the shaving seem a shame — long, lustrous coats of pale gray fluff, or whimsical tricolor calicos. A feral cat, if healthy, will keep itself as well-groomed as any housecat.

On to surgery: six vets in a small room, two to a table, are handling the spays today. Number 33 goes to Dr. Strachan, an older gent who warns me that he’s not the speediest operator in the bunch. He places a swatch of blue fabric with a diamond-shaped hole in the center over 33’s shaved belly, secures it in place with a clamp, then opens his sterile pack of tools and snaps the blade onto his scalpel handle. Slice and dab, down through the skin and the muscle of the body wall, until it’s time to go fishing. Schwartzman roots inside 33’s abdomen with a narrow spatula and a stainless steel crochet hook, “basically hunting around for the uterus. Sometimes, you get it on the first snag; sometimes it takes a while.” His first sweep pulls up a strand of intestine, but it’s not long before he draws out one of the long uterine horns, a pale gray ovary fixed to its tip. “The ovaries are the main thing. If you don’t get them, the cat won’t be able to have kittens, but she’ll just keep coming into heat.” Schwartzman ties off the blood vessels to the ovary and uterine horn — a double tie, just to make sure the cat doesn’t end up bleeding internally — cuts out the uterus, and drops the ovaries into a jar. “Somebody’s doing research, so we save them.” Tuck in what remains, stitch up the body wall and the skin, and 33 is ready for transfer out.

“Is everything normal?” asks the transfer girl, per the instructions she received from Sandy Dodson at the outset: “When you pick up a cat, you ask the vet if there are any problems — if the cat is pregnant, and if so, how far along.”

“Everything’s fine,” answers Strachan.

That’s because it’s December. “January, February, March,” says one vet to another, “75 percent of the female cats are pregnant.”

Pregnancy brings complications, explains volunteer Gina when I ask her about it. “When we do the anesthesia — what you give a ten-pound cat is different than what you give a ten-pound cat that is nursing or pregnant. There’s so much bloodflow going to the kittens, so a lot of the anesthesia isn’t absorbed by the cat. They don’t go under as deeply, and then we have to do a bump. Then, when the vets are in there trying to find the parts they need to take out, there’s more friable tissue that could be damaged and bleed. And then there’s the fact that we’re truly doing an abortion; we’re taking that life. Sometimes, the kittens are nearly at full term. I’ve had the unpleasant task of euthanizing the kittens” while they are still in the freshly excised uterus. “We’ll inject them. I love kittens; I’ve adopted them. So it’s hard on me. I know it’s for the good, so I can do it, but it’s sad. And the mothers have put so much of their bodily resources into developing these babies. But we need to end the cycle. There are just too many animals — pets in the shelter who are not getting adopted and these guys in the wild.”

The fetal kittens are not the only ones to get put down. “If we have reason to suspect that an animal is sick, we’ll screen them. Say we have a big old tomcat with abscesses and wounds. Or if we have one that’s not grooming herself…” FCC PR representative Kerrie Stone, who is on hand to distribute literature, sell FCC T-shirts, and answer questions, finishes the thought. “If we screen and find that a cat has a highly contagious disease like feline leukemia or feline AIDS, then we can find a safe environment for that cat, somewhere where the cat can live out its life in a colony with other cats in the same situation. Or, if they’re already gone to the point where it’s not humane to allow them to continue to live like that, they will be humanely euthanized and disposed of properly.”

Gina shifts the conversation back to the life-supporting work the vets do while they’ve got the cats under sedation. “I’ve seen them do amputations for tails that are really damaged — even a partial amputation of a paw. They’ll drain abscesses. I’ve seen them remove an eye if it’s been destroyed in a fight. And I’ve seen them pull a lot of teeth.”

Back at the surgical tables, Dr. Katie Frank is busy with that last assignment; I show up just in time to see her yank out a ruined incisor, brown with rot. Then she goes to work on the gum. The other vet at her station raises an eyebrow.

“A cat gum is as easy to suture as toilet paper with concrete in it,” she says.

“The good news is that you don’t need to be doing it,” he rejoins.

“I know, but it will look prettier.”

“He’s not any prettier. And if he’s like me, he’ll go home and chew it out.”

Frank presses on. Dentistry is a sideline, of course — she’s really here for the castrations. Her first patient is little more than a kitten. She pinches the scrotum taut, then makes two tiny incisions and squeezes the testes into view. “Have you seen this before?” she asks sympathetically before taking hold of a testicle and slowly, firmly drawing it away from the body, stretching the ropy length of the spermatic cord.

“We’re not putting any sutures in,” she explains, “and you don’t want any blood flow” to testicles that aren’t there any more. “So the clamp goes on at this end of the cord,” just above the testicle. “After I cut the testicle off, I use the clamp to go under here and pull this through” — creating a knot in the cord — “and then I take this one more step and create a figure-eight knot. It holds just a little bit better.” The motion is complicated but practiced; I half expect her to say that it’s all in the wrist.

“This big boy is older, and a little more well-endowed. There’s a lot more blood flow to the testes, and he’s much more attached to them.” She has to pull, really pull, to draw out enough spermatic cord for a proper knot. And of course, the initial incisions are larger. “The little guys will hardly notice it, but this one might tug at them a bit.”

Post surgery, the transport volunteers, who crisscross the clinic with the complicated grace of waiters at a good restaurant on a Saturday night, weaving Number 33 on her way through the kitty spa set up in the clinic’s garage. She gets placed on a sheet of newspaper that will be used to slide her down the long table lined with cheerful ladies, all of them relishing the chance to get these cats as clean and pretty as they’ll ever be again. Her breathing is checked, and her ears are clipped to indicate her status as fixed. “If a feral cat somehow ends up in a shelter,” says Dodson, “it’s a death sentence because they are not adoptable. But if they have a clipped ear, the shelter will usually contact us and ask if anybody recognizes the cat from its coloring. Somebody from the FCC can go and get the cat; basically, its life is saved.”

After that come injections for rabies and internal parasites, plus a general antibiotic. Ears get cleaned, coats are combed, and the cats get a dab of Advantage for help with fleas. Kittens and nursing moms might spend some time hooked up to an IV. Then it’s back into the (cleaned) cage to await wake-up, pick-up, and restoration to the colony.

Or at least, that’s standard operating procedure. Sometimes — as in the case of disease or other difficulties — there are hiccups. While they wait for their cats, Hirschmiller and fellow trapper Cindy Williams recount a recent encounter with one of those “other difficulties.”

“Cindy’s kids were walking home with some friends,” says Hirschmiller. One of the friends lived in this motel in El Cajon. They saw these feral cats. Cindy went and tried to talk to the manager about feeding the colony to work on trapping it, but he said, ‘I don’t want you to feed them.’ The cats had been there for years, but he didn’t want her to feed them. He said, ‘If you come back on my property, I’m calling the police.’ So she started feeding them behind the fence in back of the property. But somebody else was feeding them, too, and leaving the cans — we don’t do that. The owner was irritated by the trash. And then somebody put poison out. When she went out there last Saturday, she found antifreeze and a dead cat. She called the police and Animal Control, and they’re doing a necropsy. When she went out there with Channel 6, the owners asked, ‘Is Cindy Williams with you? Cindy Williams is not allowed on the premises!’ They got run off. But it’s been a rough week for them,” what with all the TV coverage.

“Karma’s a bitch,” observes Cindy.

Ultimately, Hirschmiller “removed the cats and found them a permanent, safe home,” putting a hopeful ending on an unpleasant story. Which is pretty much the point of the FCC. “It’s a program that does a lot of good,” says PR rep Stone. “We love the fact that it’s getting harder for our trappers to find cats that don’t have a tipped ear. We’re trying to do two things. One, reduce the population of homeless cats. Two, make the neighborhoods in which the colonies exist safer and healthier for domestic cats and other animals that are allowed to go outside. It’s not so much about being fanatical about cats. It’s about being a conscious human being, knowing that these cats didn’t choose their lives.”

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NatBe Feb. 24, 2011 @ 8:36 p.m.

this article made me cry. So many years volunteering for the cats and wishing the word would get out. My thanks to those of you involved in this article... Very positive article and realistic... I am a volunteer and a trapper myself. I work at the clinics as a groomer. If people need to trap a cat FCC will provide instructions and lend traps... Josh is a rare gem, most people calling in must have the moxy to trap themselves and bring the cats in to the clinics... You have to call ahead of time to get reservations.. Anyway, great article...


NatBe Feb. 24, 2011 @ 9:16 p.m.

oops!I don't mean to say Josh is the only one... there are others. I think I know who Sarah Paulson is... There have been other die-hards too that just don't it anymore... One wonderful lady that will drive out to places in the desert to help people with their ferals... But people have to get on with their lives, as will Josh, I am predicting ... Can't see anyone being able to do it indefinitely... That's why the word needs to get out; to get more people willing to help ...


mtucker90 Feb. 25, 2011 @ 11:42 a.m.

The article itself is great. Wonderful that people are trying to control cat population. I do have a problem with the cover picture. It is disturbing. Especially when you have a child that wants to know why the lady is carrying a tied up dead kitty . At first glance it looks like it.


William Howell Feb. 25, 2011 @ 12:09 p.m.

One issue not covered is cat owners allowing their pets to wander the neighborhood, defecating on everyone else's property. We have an issue on our street where several owners let their pets out in the morning and those of us with no pets end up with piles of feces, smell and flies. There is truth to the old maxim "don't crap in your own yard" and the cats follow it.

It's gotten to the point where two of us are having to trap the cats and transport them from Santee all the way to the county shelter in Bonita. This has caused an increase in neighborhood tension because those which are 'chipped' are identified and the owners then have to drive to Bonita to pay the costs involved in getting their pet back.

The products to sprinkle around the yard are expensive and wash away with the first rain. It looks like expensive and questionably effective audio emitters may be our only hope.

Cat owners in residential areas, please, please, please, keep your cats indoors or screen in your patio and provide a litter box there.


I Am Stardirt Feb. 26, 2011 @ 5:14 p.m.

Beautiful article addressing many issues in a balanced straight forward way. I have been labeled cat lady a few times in my life while trapping, spaying and neutering feral cats who went on to become great mousers and more than paid their debt.


NatBe Feb. 27, 2011 @ 6:07 p.m.

Want to respond the comment about the disturbing photo... At least I hope I have a good response that is felt to be understanding. I was blown away and so happy when I saw the photo of the female on the spay board, directly because it is the most disturbing and provocative sight we see at the clinics. I believe the disturbing effect can be mitigated if you realize the good and caring that is happening at the clinics. I believe that the disturbing photo is realistic, too, (though the cat is definitely not dead) symbolizing the unacceptable yet real killing that we do to deal with homeless cat overpopulation. I believe that that disturbing reality--the killing that goes on every year in the 10's of thousands at our shelters county-wide (I don't know the number, but I believe it is at least 10,000 a year, a huge percentage of which are healthy animals)--that's what our tax dollars pay for. Those of us that do this work are unable to sit comfortably with that reality. That's why we give our time freely to spay/neuter. But we need more people. I HOPE that the disturbing photo will get more people to read the article, become inspired by this solution to the plight of homeless cats, and help us ... Perhaps the parents of the kids that are disturbed by that photo can explain this ...


sandiegopalms March 19, 2011 @ 5:18 p.m.

I suggest to the woman who's child commented on the cover picture that she go to the Feral Cat Coalition website and educate not only herself but also her child on the realities of the situation of the cat surgeries, and also of the cat populations. There are good pictures of great volunteer cat-care on the website.


Joaquin_de_la_Mesa July 6, 2011 @ 3:48 p.m.

Why don't these cat catchers carry mobile euthanasia kits? Get them before they become a big old burden to tax payers.


I Am Stardirt July 7, 2011 @ 7:24 a.m.

Mobile euthanasia kits. When that begins, Our old people, our disabled and our poor will not be far behind. When we take out the step where we try to educate and rescue our abandoned pets because of the expense to taxpayers can our attention help but center on humans next, a population former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the "useless eaters?"


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